10 Foods That Aren’t What You Think They Are

Many processed foods use confusing labels, photographs, and slogans to trick consumers into thinking the product is something it’s not. One can, of course, always read the ingredient list to find out what exactly is in a processed food product, but there are other clues to look out for.

If something is labeled as a food “product,” it’s probably because according to the Food and Drug Administration, whatever the product is can’t technically be categorized as the food it’s claiming to be. Another thing to look for is whether something that claims to be made from meat or dairy needs to be refrigerated. If not, it’s not real food. Here’s a list of 10 foods that aren’t really what you think they are

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1. Velveeta

There’s been a lot of talk about a possible Velveeta shortage, which is happening right before the Super Bowl and other television events that require dip. The product melts smoothly to create a perfect cheesy base for queso or as a topping for nachos. But did you know that Velveeta isn’t actually cheese? It’s a cheese product. According to the FDA’s rules, Velveeta doesn’t qualify as dairy. Perhaps in lieu of the devastating shortage, you could reach for a block of real cheddar when making your queso and rest easy knowing that what you’re eating is actually food.

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2. Bacon bits

These lovely bits of meat that you sprinkle atop your salad to make eating greens palatable aren’t actually made of meat. Bacon bits are actually “artificially flavored textured soy flour to imitate bacon pieces,” according to McCormick, which makes a version of the popular salad topper. None of the ingredients in the list are meat. So if you’re a vegetarian that’s achin’ for some bacon, sprinkle away. If you want something made out of real food, you might want to go for a product labeled “real bacon bits.”

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3. Cool Whip

Here’s another dairy-like substance that isn’t actually a dairy product. Skim milk comes in fourth on the popular whipped topping’s list of ingredients, behind hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup. Light cream only makes an appearance in the “less than 2 percent” section of the ingredients list — Cool Whip is not whipped cream. For a better whipped cream option, reach for Reddi-Whip instead, as real cream is the first ingredient on its label.

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4. Agave

Agave syrup has recently become a popular, healthy alternative to sugar. The makers of agave syrup claim that the natural sweetener raises blood sugar less than regular cane sugar and say that because it’s so sweet, you can get away with using less of it and thus save on calories. Despite being marketed as a health product — and in particular, a good vegan alternative to honey — it has been found that agave syrup actually contains more fructose than high fructose corn syrup. A study from the Glycemic Research Institute cited by the Wall Street Journal said that diabetics experienced “severe and dangerous side effects” during the testing of agave syrup, and several people had to be hospitalized. Agave is between 1.4 and 1.6 times sweeter than sugar and actually has more calories than sugar.

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5. Oreos

Oreos are vegan. That’s right: Milk’s favorite cookie contains no dairy or eggs. The ingredient label starts with sugar and unbleached enriched flour, then goes on to list a plethora of unpronounceable chemical additives. Chocolate comes in last on the cookie’s long list of ingredients. Among other things, the cookies contain wheat and soy, but no dairy. So what is that creamy center made of, if not cream? The Oreo nutritional facts don’t make that very clear.

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6. Sunny Delight

Think Sunny D is just super sugary orange juice? Well, you’re right about the sugar, wrong about the juice. Sunny D and anything else labeled “juice drink” is not juice but high fructose corn syrup. The small amount of juice that’s in Sunny Delight comes under the “less than 2 percent” section and is a combination of orange, tangerine, apple, lime, grapefruit, and pear juice. Ninety-eight percent of the drink is just corn syrup and water. The drink’s vitamin C content is added artificially through ascorbic acid, and it’s rife with preservatives and artificial coloring. If you want to drink real fruit juice, choose an option labeled “100 percent juice.”

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7. Jell-O

So Oreos are surprisingly vegan, but Jell-O is surprisingly not. It’s not even vegetarian. Jell-O is made of gelatin, which is itself made of the collagen found in animal protein. Sources of that animal protein include various combinations of bones, hooves, and skin from pigs, cows, and fish. While Jell-O has a strange cult fixation among the Mormon community, people who practice religions that inhibit the consumption of certain types of meat have to skip it entirely, as Jell-O packaging doesn’t specify what type of animal was used in the production of the gelatin. Some potential good news for Jell-O-loving vegetarians? There have been recent experiments with making gelatin from human DNA fragments. Gives a whole new meaning to the company’s 90s slogan: Jell-O…it’s alive! Doesn’t it?

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8. Kraft 100 Percent Grated Parmesan Cheese

Yup: More cheese that’s not actually cheese, and again from our friend Kraft. This stuff is so far from real Parmesan cheese that it can’t legally be labeled as such in Europe. Kraft lists the product’s only ingredient as being “Parmesan cheese” but then goes on to say that “Parmesan cheese” is made of milk, salt, and a whole bunch of additives. Cellulose — wood shavings — is added to keep the product’s powdery consistency, along with potassium sorbate and cheese cultures. As Forbes food writer Larry Olmsted points out in this in-depth article about Parmesan cheese, Kraft’s version is 100 percent grated but definitely not 100 percent cheese.

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9. Aunt Jemima “maple syrup”

Unless you’re a breakfast purist or Canadian, the “maple syrup” you use on your waffles and pancakes likely isn’t maple syrup at all. Aunt Jemima’s maple syrup is actually for the most part corn syrup. The first three ingredients are corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and water. Nothing maple is even in the stuff, unless that’s covered by “natural and artificial flavors.” Calling the sugary condiment what it is — Aunt Jemima’s corn syrup — doesn’t sound quite as appetizing first thing in the morning. Aunt Jemima can’t even call it “maple” syrup, and instead just refers to it as “syrup,” hoping that consumers think maple rather than corn.

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10. Pringles

These weirdly homogenous chips in a can are far from pieces of fried potato. While they do technically count as potato chips in the U.S., the company successfully convinced the U.K. government that Pringles aren’t potato chips so that the product wouldn’t be taxed as a luxury item. Pringles are made from a mix of corn, rice, wheat, and potato flakes that are mushed together and then put into a machine to give them their unique shape. Pringles are actually less than 50 percent potato.
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